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interview by Donald A. Yerxa

The Best Book Ever Written on America

Tocqueville's perennial timeliness.

Democracy in America

Democracy in America

Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, edited by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, University of Chicago Press, 2000, 722 pp.; $35

Harvey Mansfield, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard, is one of the most prominent and controversial academics in America today. Many people know him primarily as the outspoken critic of grade inflation, political correctness, and identity politics in the academy. But Mansfield is first and foremost a meticulous scholar and a leading expert on the political philosophy of Machiavelli. He also enjoys translating great books in political philosophy. His translations of Machiavelli's The Prince (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985, 1998) and Discourses on Livy (Chicago, 1996) are major contributions to the field. More recently, Mansfield and his wife, Delba Winthrop, have turned their attention to the great classic of American political thought, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (Chicago, 2000). Mansfield sat with Donald Yerxa in February before a lecture at Eastern Nazarene College to discuss this new translation and the enduring relevance of Tocqueville's observations.

You indicate, in the introduction to your new translation, that Tocqueville's Democracy in America "is at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America." Why do you say that on both counts?

Well, let's see; can we think of a better book written on democracy? Maybe John Stuart Mill's On Liberty? Or Henry Adams's book, Democracy? What is striking about Tocqueville's Democracy in America is that it's not a book about democratic theory. It is a book about democratic practice. You might say in addition to this that since he claims to be producing a new political science for a new world, he is giving us a theory about the practice. That is what makes Democracy in America so special, different, and perhaps superior to books like Mill's On Liberty, which is a paean to democracy, a hymn of praise that does not go into the practical difficulties, but contents itself with the theories and improvements which one might propose. Tocqueville, on the other hand, looks at democracy in America for its practices.

That is why he begins his study of American government in the first volume with the New England township. It is a spontaneous form of government. He ends the first volume with a discussion of the Constitution (which he calls "a work of art"). The beginning is spontaneous; the end is an artificial construction—very complicated. That perspective distinguishes Democracy in America from The Federalist, which takes for granted the township and state governments and concentrates on the federal government. So Tocqueville's picture of democracy is fuller than that of The Federalist, which I think would be another rival for a description of democracy or "popular republic"—a phrase that The Federalist's authors would prefer. At the same time, Tocqueville's book is much better than our contemporary theories of democracy, such as Robert Dahl's, for example. Again, it is so much fuller, so much more interested in democracy as a way of life in addition to democracy as a form of government.

As to being the best book on America, well, there again, I just tried to think what is a better book. Tocqueville's book is 165 years old or so. A lot of the facts that he recounts have been overtaken by subsequent events, but it is amazing the extent to which the analysis holds up: his insights into things peculiarly American, like the Puritan beginning, the discussion of the Indians, the discussion of slavery and race relations in general. So I think I would hold to that judgment.

Is it coincidental that the best book ever written on America was not written by an American?

I don't know. It is something of reproach to us Americans that the best book should have been written by a Frenchman. Of course, he has the advantage of being an outside observer. But it doesn't help you that much to be an outside observer if you are not also a very acute observer, which Tocqueville was. I don't think it has to be the case that a foreigner is a better observer than a native. After all, a lot of other Frenchmen who came to America in the nineteenth century were somewhat contemptuous of this half-civilized republic in the wilderness, attempting to be European and not succeeding. That was how they typically understood it. Tocqueville had a very different view. He looked on America as the future of democracy, which was also the future of Europe. So he thought America was ahead of Europe rather than behind. That I think is what distinguishes Tocqueville from other French or European observers who came here.

Why was there a need for this new translation of yours?

There are two other translations. One was done by an Englishman, Henry Reeve, during Tocqueville's lifetime. Tocqueville read this translation, and he didn't altogether like it. He said that his friend Henry Reeve had accentuated whatever he said in favor of aristocracy and played down whatever he said in favor of democracy. That is a rather severe criticism of a translation. Nonetheless, that one lasted for a long time because it was done by a friend of his. More recently, in the 1960s, there was a new translation by a man named George Lawrence under the editorship of J. P. Mayer, a longtime scholar of Tocqueville. That translation is a lot better than the Reeve one, but it is not nearly good enough. My wife, Delba Winthrop, and I wanted to make a much more accurate rendition of Tocqueville than either of those two. We wanted to try to maintain consistency in translating his key terms and keep something of the flavor of his French.

There are two ideas of how to translate. One is to bring the work being translated to our time, and the other is to invite readers in our time go back to the work being translated. We definitely attempted to do the latter. We don't mind using old-fashioned expressions, as long as they are understandable today. We wanted very much to maintain a certain fidelity to Tocqueville, who was a much greater writer and thinker than we are. Of course, whenever you translate, you are in the realm of imperfection because two languages never match exactly. His time is different from ours. Given the inevitable defects of translation, we tried to be as faithful as we could.

What drew you and your wife to this project?

What drew me to it was, first, my wife's great acquaintance with the book. She knows it backwards and forwards. It seemed to me that that was something we should take advantage of. Second, I have translated Machiavelli, and I rather like translating. It is a relaxation from writing one's own thoughts. It gives you very close acquaintance with the great books, if that is what you are translating. So, I was looking for something to translate. And since we teach Democracy in America all the time, we knew that the existing translations were very inadequate.

Were there instances when Tocqueville was just dead wrong?

I can't think of any. "Dead wrong" is a strong term. He feared a race war. That did not happen, very fortunately. He thought it was equally dangerous not to free the slaves and to free them. He didn't anticipate that the war which came would be between two groups of whites. I guess you can say that he also didn't anticipate that there would be an Abraham Lincoln, a man of such towering intelligence and morality and of such effective statesmanship, through whose leadership the matter of slavery could be set on a course that has brought us much closer to racial harmony than Tocqueville ever expected.

Another point that one might question in Tocqueville is his reliance on lawyers as a conservative force. They are certainly not that now. This is perhaps the consequence of the democratization of the law—or—should I say, the transformation of American law in terms of democratic theories. Above all, these days one sees the theory of legal realism, first conceived by the American progressives, now rampant in American law schools. This is the theory that something else behind the law is more powerful than the law itself. Tocqueville, I think, would have agreed. He would have said that in our democracy what is more powerful than the law is the will of the people. But he did not like democratic theorists who looked for ways to extend the will of the people and the power of the people. So what has happened, I think, is in accord with Tocqueville's general distrust of democratic theorists, even if he was wrong about the present-day conservatism of American lawyers. In a way, lawyers are still an aristocratic, if not a conservative, force because they know the forms of law in a way that the average person does not. They profit from this knowledge because America is a government and a society centered on legality—a society which, as Tocqueville very famously said, "tends to turn every political question into a legal one."

Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America in two volumes (1835 and 1840). How do these two volumes differ in content and tone?

The first one is about American government especially. The problem presented there is the tyranny of the majority. It contains a lot of the lively description of America, especially the long chapter at the end of the first volume on the three races in America. This first volume was a bestseller and a great success. It made Tocqueville's name as a writer and a critic in France. It was very well greeted by the leading French writers who reviewed it. Tocqueville was soon after made a member of the Academy; this was in 1842-43 at the age of 36.

The second volume came out in 1840, five years later. He had been doing some things in the interval—running for office, starting up a newspaper, getting married—and also he was ill for a part of that time. So it took him five years to finish the second volume. That was very much more on democracy than on America, especially on the character of democratic society. It features a danger of democracy less dramatic than the tyranny of the majority; here Tocqueville speaks of a mild despotism that arises from what he calls individualism.

Individualism as Tocqueville conceives it here is not a feeling, like selfishness, but rather an opinion that the individual is too small and too weak to accomplish anything interesting by himself. This leads to being a prisoner of large, impersonal forces, historical forces. This leads individuals to retire from society as a whole and seek their own company or stay with their own family instead of acting or associating in democratic action with their fellow citizens. Hence individuals give over their interests to a large state, a centralized state, which Tocqueville calls an immense being. This in turn produces a society of enervated, incompetent individuals who are well taken care of, but who don't know how to do anything interesting with their lives.

The message of this second volume was a more difficult and subtle one than he gave in the first volume. The second volume was not such a success. This disturbed Tocqueville a little, but his friend John Stuart Mill wrote to him with the consolation that it was, he thought, far superior in intelligence to the first volume.

Was democracy destined to succeed in America?

Democracy didn't have to succeed. But Tocqueville does say that there is an ever-expanding revolution in democracy in America. It is not something which you can expect to stop at any particular point. I think that is a pretty fair characterization of our history since that time. It is true that the post-Reconstruction period in the South took away the franchise that was given to blacks right after they were freed during the Civil War, but if you compare that to being enslaved, it is still a considerable advance. In general, it seems that the march of democracy is irresistible, or irreversible—those are the words that Tocqueville uses. Not necessarily inevitable. You can't turn it back. He also says that there are two parties in America, as in every republic: one which wants to expand the power of the people, and one which wants to constrict it. There have been times, I suppose, when the constricting party has been ascendant, but not for long. And I don't think any principle of constricting the power of the people could succeed. There are still restrictions, but they have to be phrased in terms of representing the people or refining their will, and never simply crossing it or making it less. In other words, the restrictions on democracy have to be argued in terms of democracy and not as elitist or aristocratic.

Tocqueville says a lot about religion and its relationship to American democracy. He was immediately struck by the religious aspect of America and contended that religion functioned as a political institution that exercised great utilitarian value in regulating American mores. What do you take from his thoughts on religion and American democracy?

In the first place, he says that American democracy has its origin in religion, in the Puritans. Puritanism he understands to be an essentially democratic religious movement. The Pilgrims came to America in pursuit of an idea; they considered themselves to be on a divine mission. When they arrived, they set up self-governing communities that were perhaps too regulated to be entirely consistent with liberty. Tocqueville, I think, has some of the criticism in mind that you hear so frequently today of Puritans. When people say "puritanical," they mean an over-regulation, especially regarding sexual matters. I think he would agree in part with that criticism, but he would also agree with those people who say that American democracy came from the Puritans. Another thing that was very important that came from the Puritans was public education, the notion that a democratic community should be responsible for the education of the young.

Then he discusses religion once later in the first volume when he is talking about mores. That is where he gives a kind of utilitarian appreciation of religion. Americans think it to be useful, almost regardless of whether it is true. I think that needs to be noted, but it also needs to be considered together with another mention of religion in the second volume, in which the truth of religion is much more relevant. That occurs in the context of Tocqueville's criticism of American materialism. It is only religion, he says, that can satisfy the human soul, the yearning for the infinite. This yearning for religion you see even in the way Americans pursue wealth. Americans, Tocqueville says, are very restive because they have an inkling that there are so many material goods that you will never enjoy them all in your lifetime. So how can it be that the meaning of your life is to pursue what you are never going to get? Then he says that religion supplies a criticism of materialism and a sense of what is great. Tocqueville always wants some understanding of greatness in democracy. So here, then, religion seems not just to be useful to democracy in the sense of helping it to survive, but useful in a higher sense of ennobling it and allowing democracy to meet the requirements of the human soul.

Roger Kimball wrote an interesting piece recently on "Tocqueville Today" in The New Criterion in which he quotes the contemporary French philosopher Pierre Manent: "To love democracy well it is necessary to love it moderately." Do you agree?

I do very much. I think that is a very Tocquevillian remark. Pierre Manent is the author of the best book written on Tocqueville, and so when he says something I always listen. Tocqueville himself says that he is a friend of democracy, but he doesn't flatter us, flatter democracy. He fears that he will be misunderstood by speaking frankly. Well, the best friends of democracy have always been the frankest ones. And the American democracy, I think, has especially been favored by a certain introspection from its leaders and thinkers, which is not hostile to democracy but not favorable to its every whim. If you look at The Federalist, for example, I think you will come across an analysis of American government that looks for the special defects that apply to republican governments. It is not concerned with attacking monarchies or nonrepublican governments because those are not going to be established in America. It is concerned with making our republic work well. Tocqueville, I think, is very much in that spirit. We can also find it in American authors. Above all, I think of Mark Twain, a very democratic author, but also very wise about the vagaries of democracy.

Donald A. Yerxa is professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College and assistant director of The Historical Society.

NOTE: For your convenience, the following book, which was mentioned above, is available for purchase:

Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, edited by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop

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